In the tech world, it is hard work to craft strategies. We rarely have all the needed information; we don’t know what will happen in the future, and everything changes all the time. Despite the difficulty, we need to decide a course of action. It feels more like an art than a science and takes determination, courage, knowledge, experience, and passion.
It is tempting to say “…and hopefully X will happen…” when working on a strategy. When you hear those words, perk up and recall this principle: Hope is not a strategy.
Deborah Mills-Scofield, in 2012 wrote an article on the Harvard Business Review, claiming the exact opposite (sort of). Here is an excerpt from it:
…hope is a critical part of achieving a strategy when based on what is possible; perhaps not highly probable, but possible. Hope is the belief that something is possible and probable, and the recognition that the degree of each is not necessarily equal.
When hope is based on real-world experience, knowledge and tangible and intangible data, it results in trust, which is necessary to implementing any strategy. Without faith in the people, processes and technologies involved, how can we achieve anything? Hope recognizes the reality that failure happens, success is not assured, the laws of physics don’t change and prudence is needed to discern when to persevere — and when to pivot. Hope doesn’t demarcate a linear path, but it does guide us through twists and turns. Hope views the glass as half full, not half empty. Hope supports realistic optimism, a necessary component of success…
There is much truth in those statements, but there is danger in short-cutting a strategy by introducing “hope” as a significant part of it. Let me explain my view and why I think it is important.
Hope is a form of assumption, and assumption is the evil mother of all mistakes. The same considerations I made in my post about assumptions, can be made for the concept of hope.
For example, when walking you hope the ground will not fail under your foot, and thus you make the assumption it won’t; if you didn’t make that assumption, you would not be able to walk freely.
Walking does not normally require much planning. But let’s consider what would happen if a particular walk was risky and important enough to require crafting a detailed strategy. For example, imagine that you are responsible for sending someone into space to take a walk on Mars. In this extreme case, billions of dollars and many lives are at stake, and nothing can be left to chance. You have to plan and strategize all the details. You have to find ways to check the ground for soundness, and you have to select the walking area with great care. You have to assess, rehearse, and deliberately strategize walking techniques and many minute technical details.
Do you see where I am going with this? When something is important enough to require a strategy, you cannot use “hope” to avoid detailing that strategy and thinking about solutions to possible problems.
Hope is a Spectrum
Hope is a spectrum, exactly like assumptions. When working on a strategy it is key to understand where to draw the line between an unacceptably high-risk hope and acceptably high-risk hope. Evaluating the risk level of some part of a strategy transforms blind hope into a well considered “uncertainty variable.” When you start seeing an unknown as an uncertainty variable, especially in high-stake situations, hope has no place as part of the solution, and risk mitigation strategies and contingency plans become the solution.
Hope becomes acceptable only when the risk is low enough to not require a strategy at all. Thus, hope is not a strategy, but a label you stick to something that you don’t need to think about in great details.
Next time you hear the word “hopefully” when discussing a strategy or part of one, ask yourself if the subject of that hope is important or risky enough to require a strategy. Don’t let it go if it is! Keep on working on a risk assessment, mitigation strategies, and contingency plans.
Hope is Different than Optimism
The article in the HBR continues with this statement:
Optimists are powerful for solving wicked problems, the ones pessimists say can’t be solved.
If pessimism means aversion to risk, then I agree with the author. I am a big proponent of taking deliberate risks when I understand their cost and value. For instance, jumping from an airplane without a parachute is a risk that I would not take. The cost is a high probability of losing my life, and the value is simple bragging rights. Not worth it. Jumping from the second floor of my house is a risk I would be willing to take if the house is on fire and I have no other way out. The cost is a potential broken bone, and the value is my life. Sounds like a good deal.
However, if optimism means that risks are overlooked and not deliberately evaluated, then the author is confusing optimism for sloppiness and pessimism with not knowing how to solve a problem and refusing to work on a solution.
When Hope Becomes a Shortcut
I started this post stating that crafting a strategy is hard work. Sloppiness, or refusing to work on the truly hard parts of the problem, are not acceptable when stakes are high. That is what makes crafting strategies hard, and you cannot shortcut it by making assumptions, or refusing to put in the work and time required to do it properly.
You need to take deliberate and calculated risks, not make sloppy or lazy decisions.
This post is not intended to criticize the author of the HBR article or invalidate what she said. I believe we are saying the same thing but through the lens of different implicit definitions of “hope” and “strategy.”
Deciding to think of hope as a strategy, will tempt you to use it too quickly as a way out. As a result, you will shortcut the process to avoid the work required to come up with a solid plan. For this reason, it helps bring to mind the “hope is not a strategy” principle whenever you sniff this tendency in you, the people you are working with, or the process.